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Virginia Lawmakers Move to Make Voting Easier

Election signs by side of road
State Democrats have made voting reform a top priority. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

The way Virginia approaches elections could soon change dramatically if a number of proposals from the General Assembly make it to the Governor’s desk — many of which aim to increase voter turnout.

One of the top priorities for the new Democratic majority is making it easier to vote. A common problem some voters face is just finding the time to cast a ballot.

Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) said that’s why she’s sponsoring a bill to make Election Day a state holiday.

“It would make it easier for all Virginians to vote. Many Virginians experience barriers to getting to the polls on Election Day and there are usually long lines at the polls, in the early mornings or before the polls close,” Lucas said.

Advocates, like Tram Nguyen with the progressive advocacy group New Virginia Majority, say making a state-recognized Election Day holiday could also allow for more volunteers to work the polls.

“I think one of the benefits to that could be that we have a pool of employees, state and public employees who now have the day off that might consider themselves being election officers,” Nguyen said.

The bill would also remove Lee-Jackson Day, essentially substituting the two holidays on the state calendar. Governor Ralph Northam said two factors moved him to support this change. One, a need to “move [Virginia] forward” from its history, citing Lee and Jackson’s fight “to prolong slavery,” and two, a possible budget problem with establishing a second paid state holiday.

The bill passed in the Senate, but not without controversy. Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg) was one of several pushing back against the bill.

“I know it has obviously racial overtones and that's the issue and that's why we have this bill to do away with Lee-Jackson Day,” Peake said. “We can promote everyone. We can promote diversity, we can add things without taking away or tearing down other things.”

There’s also a push to do away with the requirement to show a photo ID at the polls.

Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) is proposing to let voters prove their identity by using any other identification, like an employee ID card. Or they could show documentation, like a paycheck or utility bill, that has their name on it.

The photo ID requirement was enacted in 2013 — made possible by a Supreme Court ruling that year, which struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act.  Under current state law, voters without proper identification have to cast provisional ballots, which wouldn’t count unless they returned to their local registrar’s office with a photo ID.

“This requirement can be burdensome, unrealistic, and in some cases discriminatory,” Locke said. “Some voters may not bother to take this extra step if they see the unofficial results and think their vote won't matter.”

But Republicans have questioned why the change is necessary.

“I haven't heard a single example of anybody being denied access to the ballot box as a result of this photo ID legislation,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham).

He added that repealing the current requirement would have some consequences.

“It is not discriminatory in any way. It is pure fiction and the fairness of our process is going to suffer. So now maybe we'll have free and open elections, but let's just forget about the fairness,” Obenshain said.

Studies, including one conducted by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in 2018, have shown voter fraud is incredibly rare, but Republicans say even one isolated case is too much.

The full House and Senate are also weighing whether to allow voters to cast absentee ballots without needing a reason to do so. Right now, Virginians can vote absentee if they can cite one of 20 excuses, like being out of town for a business trip.

Nguyen with the New Virginia Majority Nguyen said no excuse absentee voting could allow more voters to exercise their constitutional right — adding that voting restrictions and limitations often disenfranchise low-income voters and people of color the most.

“There are challenges to them being able to vote on Election Day. Emergencies come up, they can’t take off work, transportation issues,” Nguyen said.  “By establishing no excuse absentee voting and creating that 45 day period, it allows voters to be able to cast their ballot when they're ready to. And I think that that would be a significant improvement. And we could see voter turnout rates increase significantly across the Commonwealth.”

While these bills are widely expected to pass both chambers, other bills, like same-day voter registration, may face a tougher fight. That legislation cleared the House on Monday but may face a steeper climb in the Senate.